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Online Meeting On The 2010 Pike River Mine Disaster In New Zealand Exposes Cover-up By Successive Governments


The Socialist Equality Group (New Zealand) held an
important public webinar last Saturday, titled “Ten years
after the Pike River mine disaster: Political lessons of the
struggle for the truth about the deaths of 29
men.”

It discussed one of New Zealand’s worst
industrial disasters: the underground explosions at Pike
River, where 29 people were killed in November 2010. This
was not an accident, but an entirely avoidable tragedy
caused by Pike River Coal placing profit and production
ahead of safety.

The meeting was an international
event, attended by workers from New Zealand, Australia,
Brazil, India and Norway. Some family members of those who
died at Pike River also took part.

The speakers
exposed the role played by National Party and Labour
Party-led governments, abetted by the union bureaucracy,
state regulators, the police and the judicial
system—firstly in allowing Pike River Coal to operate with
flagrantly unsafe and criminal practices; and secondly, in
shielding the company’s chief executive Peter Whittall and
other senior managers from justice for the past 10
years.

They also discussed why successive governments
have refused to mount a thorough underground investigation
to gather forensic evidence and recover bodies from the
mine, despite promising to do so. This has prevented the
full truth from coming to light about the cause of the first
explosion on November 19, and what happened afterwards,
including the cause of a second explosion on November 24.
The families and independent investigators have gathered
evidence which suggests that there may have been survivors
following the first and second explosions—contrary to the
findings of the 2012 royal commission of inquiry and claims
made by police.

SEG member and World Socialist Web
Site writer John Braddock, who chaired the event, pointed
out that Pike River was far from an isolated case.
Governments throughout the world were placing corporate
profits ahead of human life by refusing to take steps to
stop the spread of COVID-19. He noted that a new study
estimates the real death toll from the pandemic at 6.93
million globally—more than twice the official
figure.

The meeting then heard a recorded speech from
Bernie Monk, whose son Michael died at Pike River. He
highlighted the complicity of the Department of Labour and
the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU),
which knew the mine was unsafe but did nothing to protect
workers.
 

Monk said Jacinda Ardern’s Labour
Party-led government had reneged on its 2017 election
promise to fully investigate the mine and recover evidence
for prosecutions. The minister responsible for Pike River
recovery, Andrew Little, announced in March that the
government would no longer fund the underground
investigation to explore the mine workings beyond a
roof-fall, because it would be too expensive. Monk pointed
out that parliament is due to be renovated at a cost of $250
million—more than five times the amount spent on the
investigation.

“We’re 10 years down the track,
still haven’t got justice, still haven’t got
accountability, and the families have had to go out and do
an investigation of their own,” Monk said. “Our fight is
going to continue, we’re going to bring the truth out…
They’re trying to sweep this under the table, they’re
trying to wear us out and hoping that we go away. Well,
it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Kath Monk,
Michael’s mother, added that the families wanted “every
person who goes to work to come home safely. Our men
didn’t, and no one’s been held accountable for that, and
that’s not right.”

Richard Healey, an electrical
engineer who has spent two years investigating the disaster
on behalf of some of the families, denounced the official
investigations led by the police as “a
cover-up.”

His detailed and damning presentation
outlined evidence suggesting that there may have been
survivors after the first explosion on November 19, and even
the second explosion five days later, if they had been
trapped behind the roof-fall. The previous National Party
government and the police had falsely claimed that the
explosions turned the whole mine into an inferno, leaving no
chance of survivors.

Healey displayed images taken
deep inside the mine by cameras lowered into bore holes,
which showed wooden pallets and other undamaged objects. The
families have also seen an image of an intact and fully
clothed body in the mine.

Healey debunked the Labour
Party-led government’s lies, echoed by the union
bureaucracy, that the mine is now too unstable to fully
explore. He explained the crucial importance of examining
evidence beyond the roof-fall, including the main
ventilation unit. The unit, which was operated in a highly
dangerous manner, is thought to be the ignition source for
the first explosion.

Terry Cook, a member of the
Socialist Equality Party (Australia), explained that the
conditions at Pike River were mirrored in Australia. He
described his experience writing about the 1994 Moura mine
disaster and interviewing the victims’ families for
Workers News, a predecessor of the WSWS. The families became
increasingly angry at mining company BHP, the Queensland
state Labor government, and the Construction, Forestry and
Mining Union, which knew about dangerous levels of methane
but did nothing to prevent people from going
underground.

Following the disaster, a union
representative sat on the official inquiry, which
recommended that no charges be brought against the company,
its managers or executives. Cook said this gave “a green
light to the mining companies, that they could continue to
kill and maim with impunity.” Cook has written recently
about the explosion at Anglo American’s Grosvenor mine in
Queensland, which left five workers with horrific
injuries.

Tom Peters, a leading member of the SEG, who
has written extensively about Pike River for the WSWS over
the past decade, reviewed how the political establishment
and the EPMU were complicit in both the disaster and the
cover-up.
 

He described how the Labour Party
and its coalition partners, the Greens and NZ First, had
sought to deceive the families in the 2017 election,
promising to “immediately” re-enter the mine and to
bring those responsible to justice. He pointed out that the
WSWS had warned in January 2018 “that the government’s
pledges cannot be trusted.”

The WSWS drew attention
to the fact that the so-called “recovery” was being led
by Minister Little, who was the EPMU leader in November
2010. Peters played a recording of Little’s comments to
the media defending Pike River Coal’s safety record
following the disaster.

“The Ardern government used
different tactics to try and achieve what the National Party
was unable to do: to shut down the investigation and make
sure that no one faces any serious charges,” the speaker
said. This included attempts to divide the families by
breaking up their independent committee.
 

The
decade-long fight for justice by the families “contains
critically important political lessons about the Labour
Party and the trade unions,” Peters said. He quoted from
the International Committee of the Fourth International’s
(ICFI) recent statement, “ Forward to the International
Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees!”, which
calls for a break from the pro-capitalist trade unions and
the formation of worker-controlled organisations to fight
for safety and against attacks on living
conditions.

The experience of Pike River also
demonstrated the need to build a genuine socialist party.
Peters said this was “the only way to combat the enormous
political pressure that is brought to bear by the ruling
class to disarm and divide workers, through the instruments
of the Labour Party and the unions, and all their
allies.”

After the reports, Peters, Healey and Cook
answered several questions. They discussed the cynical
attempts by the media to blame workers for Pike River and
similar disasters caused by corporate greed. Peters also
commented on the way the Ardern government had commemorated
the 10th anniversary of the disaster, by seeking to flatter
the families and convince them that the government was on
their side—even as it was preparing to shut down the
investigation.

Healey encouraged listeners to read the
WSWS coverage of Pike River, calling it “the most
straight-shooting, forthright and comprehensive of all media
outlets.”

Dean Dunbar, whose son Joseph died at Pike
River at the age of just 17, told the WSWS that the webinar
was “really productive,” and would help to combat the
“litany of lies” about the disaster. “In the way that
you explain [the history of the cover-up], it is logical,
it’s sensible.”

After the meeting, Dunbar read
some of the WSWS coverage “going back to 2010,” and
noted: “You’ve been very, very accurate along the way.
You have been as close to the mark as one could
expect.”

He said the families had become “very
aware of how sinister” the former National Party
government was, and that it represented “big business.”
The Labour government, however, was “very good at
disguising themselves.” He hoped that people were
beginning to understand that there were no differences
between the major parties.

Dunbar also said the trade
unions “have changed” and now “most are just branches
of government, in the guise of being there to help the
common man, the worker.”

Responding to government
claims that it would be too expensive to enter the mine
workings, he pointed to the “quarter of a billion
dollars” in government money spent on renovating
parliament, and the same amount spent on the America’s Cup
yacht race “for Rich Listers to cruise their boats around
the harbour.”

“We want to bring our children home
and we want to convict the people that murdered them,” he
said. “When did that become so wrong?”

Dunbar
stressed the importance of the feasibility study conducted
on behalf of the families by several mining experts,
including former chief inspector of mines Tony Forster. The
document, released yesterday, demolishes the government’s
claims that it would be too technically difficult and costly
to explore the mine workings. It shows that this can be done
safely for $8 million.

12 May 2021, original url: https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/05/12/pike-m12.html

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